For the last week we’ve been mourning the passing of Maurice Scully. He was a major Irish poet, and it was our privilege to publish his poem ‘Air’ in the Winter 2021-22 issue of the magazine. Below is a remembrance of Scully’s life and work, written by his long time friend Trevor Joyce. Our thoughts are with Maurice’s family and friends.
Maurice once wrote me that ‘filling in forms is the one thing in life that truly truly gets up my nose’ and in the years I knew him, I watched with pleasure as he variously eluded or sabotaged forms of the bureaucratic variety. Poetic form, of course, was another matter, but it was likewise something that should never merely be a matter of ‘filling in’. Once he got his—fairly conventional and later disowned—first book out of the way, he set about developing an apparatus of formal devices unique, so far as I am aware, in Irish poetry, and without obvious parallel elsewhere in the world.
The first books of Maurice’s poetry that I encountered were in something like a samizdat mode: thick volumes printed by himself and ring-bound; the only way of circulating such long texts in the days before publishers began much to notice his existence. His poetry initially surprised me by its apparent simplicity, an almost childlike quality, but any notions of limitation were quickly overcome as I read and reread the few books I had. As time went by and more appeared, it became evident both what a major project Maurice was engaged in, and how varied and finely tuned were the means he used.
The primary mode of Maurice’s work strikes me as an intense focus of attention on small effects, exactly apprehended. Often these are natural phenomena: the movements of a spider, a vine climbing a pillar, the wing-feathers of a crow in flight, the first drops of rain on dust. The language brought to bear is playful, meticulous and unpretentious, closer perhaps to the precisions we associate with scientific fieldwork than to the sometimes vaguer registers of poetry.
This language also is subject to a fine and detailed articulation, shifting and switching unexpectedly as it follows the precise contour of its object. And it is, despite its frequent austerity, very much a poetic language, working through variations on poetic form (sonnet, round, song, and ballad are all reworked to new ends), and echoing in micro-effects the work of poets from Ireland (Seán Ó Riordán, Brian Coffey), Britain (Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, Ric Caddell) and America (the Objectivists, Oppen and Niedecker). And the voices of family, friends and fellow poets are always there: a low murmur surrounding and invading the poems.
But if, as I say, the primary mode of this poetry is of close unblinking attention, then it is frequently varied by the incursions of an all too familiar practical world of electricity bills, bank managers, and other shifty manipulators, which distract from the minutiae of the world and the practice of notation. Again and again, the voice of the poet is forced to do a double take, to back up, to reassess. But the spikiness of the world is re-accommodated and the note-taking proceeds, always with good humour, and with evident pleasure in the world. The process is flexible, ingenious, and welcoming of the unexpected.
Reaching beyond Maurice’s work in search of an analogy, the closest I can think of is that of the painter Paul Klee. There’s the same curiosity as to what the medium can do, a similar interest in small effects writ large, a shared fascination with the compositions of those often thought below serious consideration: Maurice included fables for children, and the time he spent teaching in Lesotho frequently informed his responses to Irish realities.
Maurice had many friends who are mourning his loss; among his great abilities was a gift for friendship. His wife, Mary, and his four children were frequent, though often implicit, presences in his work, and they must be missing him grievously now.
We’re lucky that he left us his poetry, a huge body of work composed with extraordinary single-mindedness over some forty years. It’s marked by great technical skill and precise observation of the world, both human and natural, and it’s easy to approach, ingeniously playful, and greatly good humoured. It conveys a lasting sense of the man.